A man in priestly robes, seemingly the long-awaited Father O'Shea, arrives at a little-frequented Catholic mission in 1947 China. Though the man seems curiously uncomfortable with his priestly duties, his tough tactics prove very successful in the Seven Villages, as around them China disintegrates in civil war and revolution. But he has a secret, and his friendship with mission nurse Anne (an attractive war widow) seems to be taking on an unpriestly tone...
At a remote Catholic Mission in China during 1947, a long waited for priest finally shows up. However is everything as it appears or is there something more to this priest.
This is a true classic film and how could it not be when it stars the legendary impeccable Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful immaculate Gene Tierney. Set in pre-communist, post World War II China this film was going to be a classic no matter what. Even though Bogart is playing a priest, which really doesn’t suit him, we find out why and are instantly drawn into this film plot.
I’m not really giving anything away by telling you that Bogart is playing a World War II pilot posing as a priest because, well one the film is over 55 years old now and two any and all information on this film tends to mention it in the second or third line of the synopsis. I suppose because we instantly can see that not only does Bogart not fit the role of a priest but the character he is playing is uncomfortable as a priest. He regularly makes excuses not to give Mass or speak to parishioners. And he is definitely flirting with the mission’s nurse Anne Scott (Gene Tierney).
The film starts off with Farther O’Shea (Humphrey Bogart) riding a mule through the rural lands of China. He attempts to cross a small rickety bridge on the mule. Of course the bridge collapses under their combined weight and the fall into a strong running river. I mention this because it really looks like the mule falls into the river and is, apparently, washed away. I wonder what the animal rights were in films in the 1950’s....
When Father O’Shea reaches the mission he is helped by the nurse and quickly takes a shine to her. However the Missionaries Doctor and wife suspect the priest of covering something up. Their suspicions are exacerbated when Farther O’Shea beats a stranger who has wandered into the village and when the priest goes up to a house of ‘ill repute’ to help a depressed man get his faith back, giving him a few back ‘handers’ to hammer his point home.
Father O’Shea eventually confesses to the Bishop that he is not Father O’Shea but actually fighter pilot Jim Carmody who was captured by a local warlord, General Yang (Lee J. Cobb) and used the identity of the priest, who was killed by one of Yang’s men, to get away from the warlord. This results in General Yang and his men attacking the village and so Father O’Shea must make a choice.
Of course being a film from the mid ‘50’s there’s a lot of casual racism, to say nothing of casting Lee J. Cobb as a Chinese warlord. But it was a simpler time and it is very minimal more being kept to how the Chinese characters lines are written. Even though it’s fairly clear they can speak perfect English.
We all know that the acting by Bogart and Tierney is going to be flawless so I won’t go on about that. What I will say though is that Tierney’s character doesn’t have a lot to go on, she’s a war widow who ended up on the mission hoping to come across her husband. That’s pretty much it. And most of the other characters are fairly one dimensional; it is as if the character of Jim Carmody has taken up all the depth that the screen writer could muster. I do not think this is a problem with the acting but definitely due to the writing.
The scenery is beautiful and whilst I don’t believe that they are actually in China I could easily be convinced that they are.
I think there are a lot of themes in this movie that aren’t touched on by other films for at least another twenty or thirty years. Bogart’s character doesn’t’t believe in God but seems to be into spirituality as is the Doctor in the Mission. Also Bogart’s character embraces the idea of a more peaceful actions taken by the church. Such as when the Doctor reminds him that not too long ago the church would have burnt the prostitutes to death. And the priest responds that he doesn’t’t think that would be necessary.
The best scene in this film by far is when Yang finally catches up with Jim Carmody and rather than fight it out they have a battle of wits, both pointing out the good and bad points of either leaving the Missions alone or Jim going back to join General Yang’s army. All of which is then gambled on a few games of dice. Just Awesome, classic Humphrey Bogart playing it cool.
This film is highly recommended, try and find it where ever you can, you’ll probably have to go to eBay or Amazon.com. But do try and find it if you have any interest in classic films this is definitely one to see.